Friday, September 20, 2013

Another look at Homer's Odyssey

Not too long ago as I read Homer’s Odyssey (once again), a thought came to mind. If Homer’s Iliad serves as a kind of record of the siege of Troy (a debated issue due to the activity of the so-called gods as mentioned in the story--strip away the supernatural and the event still stands) and history and archaeology affirm the event as well as many historical figures involved, would it be possible that the Odyssey is a true account of one of the Iliad’s prominent personalities? The possibility is very high.

Any fairly-well read person knows of many events found in the Odyssey: who has not heard of Cyclops or Lotus-eaters or of the deadly Sirens? Hades has been known for thousands of years as a place for the dead. A well-read person knows that when Troy fell, the Greeks returned home only Odysseus was delayed in his return, as the story goes. But what was the reason for his delay? Was it monsters and an offended deity? Or was there another reason? 

Aeschylus records in his play “Agamemnon” that Agamemnon and Menelaus both returned home within reasonable time after the ten-year siege of Troy. Nothing held them back. Where was Odysseus, if he was a much a historical person as these other kings? Here’s my theory:

Odysseus left Troy with a fleet then his own ship and sailors. Why did Odysseus return alone? What happened to everyone? None but Odysseus was witness to anything that happened--no one remained alive to tell the tale because (for the most part) they were all eaten. The most fantastical stories return no witnesses. Only “real world” events (like being found on a beach, attending a feast, games) puts him in touch with people who could attest to that which they share in common. But he was gone for so long, being stranded on Calypso’s island, holed up in a giant’s cave, being blown off course (all this in the Mediterranean sea, not very large, even in ancient times). Who could affirm this and ease the aching hearts of son (who went looking for him) and wife?

Let’s re-enter the story at the point Odysseus washes up on the beach, was discovered by Nausicaa. He is a wreck but is discovered, cleaned up and brought into the Phaician kingdom. I want to dismiss Athena and the other gods at this point. As involved as they are in the stories, they seem to be completely absent when they matter most--when Odysseus is recounting his own to the king of the Phaicians. Where were the gods when his sailors were being eaten and in the climax of his adventures? The most remembered parts of his story are told at the feast.

Why does he tell the story? He wants to go home and needs resources, simply put. One custom of the ancient world centers around hospitality. The entire Trojan affair happened because of a breach of hospitality (Paris stole the wife of his host). Now, without resources, the most fit man on earth one-ups the most athletic with a story of his prowess. Homer states repeatedly through the mouths of gods, men and monsters that Odysseus is a man who uses his head. He’s a thinker, a strategist . . . and a storyteller. Within each situation we find Odysseus spinning a tale. Is there truth anywhere? I believe there is. The response of his host? A ship home--a journey so short he could sleep on the way.

I contend that everything Odysseus says (being blown off course, Calypso’s island, Cyclops, Lotus-eaters, etc) were a tall tale, an evenings entertainment in exchange for a ticket home--but the truth is in there somewhere. I think it is found in a couple of places, the first being in the one incident of the sailors eat plants that turns them into animals. I will over simplistically state they got stoned and hallucinated.

The other is when Odysseus, disguised as a thin old beggar, returns home and meets the swineherd. First, to the eyes of the swineherd Odysseus looks very much the same way he was found by Nausicaa. This will become important shortly. Second, because the swineherd does not recognize his master (though the dogs do), Odysseus spins another tale, less fantastical than the one told to entertain his previous host. Here in this story he mentions being captured and enslaved in Egypt.

I believe this is the truth--and it’s humiliating following the great victory at Troy. No wonder he took so long to get home when everyone else seemed to make it in good time. No wonder he looked so emaciated and was unrecognized. When he finally was recognized by Telemachus, he was said to look like a god--but can’t we all attest to how perception changes once recognition is made? Odysseus returns to his house in the disguise of mere inrecognition--until it was too late for his unwanted guests.

There is much to learn from Homer’s Odyssey, and when we take another look we may find much to learn about ancient history, custom, culture, warfare--and storytelling.

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